Going Direct: How People Are Talking About The B-17 Crash At Bradley Airport

Earnest “Mac” McCauley and David Volpat

    Earnest “Mac” McCauley, the pilot who perished in the crash of a Boeing B-17 bomber earlier this week. To Mac’s right is fellow Collings Foundation pilot David Volpat, who died in the crash of the Northrop Flying Wing in California earlier this year.

Two days after the tragic early October crash of the Collings Foundation Boeing B-17 known as Nine-O-Nine, I wrote a piece for Plane & Pilot online in which I called out the comments of some of our fellow pilots in the aftermath of the crash.

The post seemed to resonate with pilots, especially those who fly warbirds.

Every airplane crash is one crash too many, but some just get to me. This one did. And I didn’t even know any of the people aboard the WWII-era bomber, at least not directly. Regardless, the aviation universe is small enough that there are only one or two degrees of separation between us all.

I didn’t know the pilot of the B-17, Mac McCauley, but I have dozens of friends who did. And while I’ve never flown on the Collings’ B-17, I’ve flown on and flown more than a few warbirds, and I have the ultimate respect for the talent, dedication and commitment to safety of the men and women who fly them. If there are any of these pilots, many of whom are volunteers, who don’t measure up to that standard, I have yet to fly with them.

According to a piece in a 2014 issue of Plane & Pilot, McCauley had more hours in B-17s than any pilot in history, more than 5,000 as of 2014, a total he surely added to greatly in the intervening five years. From his friends on Facebook, I learned that Mac liked good coffee and would visit the local animal shelters when he was on the road, to walk the dogs, because he missed not having one with him as he traveled on Collings’ nationwide flying tours.

So when people talk about what the pilot should have done differently, I get upset. These are people who have never flown a B-17 or any big warbird, for that matter. This I know for a fact, because if they did fly vintage heavy iron, they’d have never said a word. So when they weighed in on how a pilot flying a B-17 should have responded in an emergency situation, the details of which we still don’t know, they weren’t only showcasing their ignorance but also insulting people they didn’t know while discussing a subject about which they know even less.

On a different but related subject, yes, it’s sad that a great old warbird like Nine-O-Nine is gone. Is it irreplaceable? It’s not. But even if it were, that wouldn’t matter much. The tragedy of the crash of Nine-O-Nine isn’t about the loss of a plane. It’s about the loss of the people aboard that plane, people your friends or friends of friends almost certainly knew, perhaps knew well. And it’s about those passengers who almost none of us knew, non-pilots for the most part, men and women who were going on the kind of flight they’d probably dreamed of making for years.

It’s that gulf between dreams like those and the reality of crashes like this that hit so hard. That flying can, in one instant, breathe the wonder into our souls, and in the very next moment crush it. It’s not fair. But it’s the way it is.

The right thing to do in response to such a tragedy is simple. Go flying. I can’t explain why exactly, but it’s the right thing to do in times like this.


And while we’re out there, let’s wag wing for those flown west, and do it like we mean it. It’s what they would do for us.

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I just finished reading a piece on Forbes.com by self-described futurist Blake Morgan, and it was an eye-opener. Many people, she says, are declining to travel by plane because it uses too much fossil fuel. Moreover, she points out that globally, in 30 years, aviation is slated to contribute 25% of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. She even shares that there’s a word in Swedish, flygscam, which I do not know how to pronounce, that Swedes use to describe their shame over flying.

Sweden, bear in mind, is a relatively small country with a good rail and ferry system. The choice Swedes have to make between traveling by rail and flying is a much different choice than most people in the world are faced with.

Morgan goes on to say that “zero-emissions planes could soon replace traditional fuel-powered airplanes to drastically cut back on air pollution,” a statement she makes in the paragraph following a list of bullet points in which she points out, last on the list, that in order for this to happen, both “batteries and regulations need to improve.”

Along the way, Morgan points to successful experiments with an electrically powered plane, seemingly as proof that electrics are on the horizon. I wish she’d taken some time to understand what’s really going on with those planes. They’re extreme experimental machines, designed to be exceptionally light and low in drag. Even with millions in engineering to achieve those results, they can fly for barely an hour. And these are very light planes that in no way resemble anything that could be certificated to carry passengers. I’m hopeful we have passenger-carrying four-seat airplanes in 10 years. Airliners? I think not.

Weight in airplanes is everything. In planes designed to carry paying passengers, it’s more than everything. That’s why the improvement of engine technology to provide better than 30% improvement in fuel efficiency and an even greater reduction percentage wise in emissions over the past three decades is big news, news that Morgan seems unaware of or chooses not to mention. And her claim that aviation emissions have increased leaves out the reason for the increase, that more people have the means to travel by air, so there’s more flying. But it’s being done in far more fuel-efficient planes than ever before, a trend that continues.

Morgan’s brief note about batteries, however, could’ve been, I’d say, should’ve been the main subject of the piece. Yes, if battery storage capacity improves to rival that of jet fuel, or even be in the same conversation, then, yes, I agree, we “could soon have” zero-emissions airliners. But if I were calling myself a “futurist,” as Morgan does, I’d rather focus on where we are now and how far we have to go.

So what is the difference between the energy density of today’s batteries and that of jet fuel? The fossil fuel is 50 times more energy dense. Morgan claims that predictions are for battery energy density to improve threefold in 10 years, a claim I’m doubtful of, but let’s say it’s true. And let’s say that in those 10 years, jet engines get 10% more energy efficient, a modest prediction considering that with fleet replacement, more efficient planes will push relative fuel hogs out of the picture in large numbers over the next decade. Batteries won’t be gaining on fossil fuel at all. And while engine efficiency improvements are fact, the idea of improving battery capacity is based more on hope than on science.

I hope it happens, too. But I wouldn’t base a prediction for how our aviation future will play out based on a dream of a spectacular scientific breakthrough when even tiny improvements in battery capacity are hard fought.

As pilots of small planes, could we, if we really wanted to, defend our use of fossil fuels to do what we love? Not really. But we can reassure ourselves with the knowledge that our impact is incredibly small. Relative to cars and buses, small planes represent a tiny fraction of 1% of the impact on the environment. For some planes, that impact is comparable to driving a big SUV.

I have little shame in admitting that while Swedes might be victims of flygscam, the term I use for my feelings about flying is a different one: I say, “toperoff.”

47 thoughts on “Going Direct: How People Are Talking About The B-17 Crash At Bradley Airport

  1. Fantastic response to this tragedy! Godspeed to the crew and passengers! May God bless and comfort their families and friends!!

  2. Very well said. Many members of a Facebook page about a certain aspect of light sport and general aviation are a perfect example of Isabel Goyers article. So many people know all that there is to know about aviation in this group. I am a member and when I post it is from 30,000 hours of PIC experience. There are arguments and insults routinely posted from people that think their knowledge is above any other person in the group.
    Every time you push the throttle forward the possibility of trouble is there and experience is what will get you thru most emergencies. What you think you know wii get you killed.

  3. Well said. I’m not a pilot yet, just an “old” student. I love airplanes, and I love and respect the people who fly them. Particularly the ones that acknowledge that we are imperfect, and sometimes make mistakes. The ones that are driven by a fascination and a love for flight. Every time I hear or read about a crash, it makes me hurt inside. I do not want to rush to judgment on what may have happened. Let the pros do their jobs, and let us learn from it, so that we may be better flyers.

  4. I was watching the NTSB news conference about the crash to see if they had found any solid evidence to why the airplane would not stay airborne. Possibly one engine out but nothing for certain yet. When they got to the end and took media questions I had to turn the channel. The questions were so stupid and ignorant I could not watch it anymore. I am an avid warbird enthusiast and have flown on the “Aluminum Overcast” B-17. Would do it again tomorrow. It was one of the best things I have ever done. My wife would not fly with me because it’s an old plane and she asks me what happens if it crashes. I said that we hope that won’t happen but if it does I would be smiling ( not literally ) on the way down because I was doing what I wanted to do and would be good with that being the last thing I ever did. I hope all the people that we’re injured or lost their life in the Nine-0-Nine accident we’re doing what they loved to do or maybe it was a bucket list item they had always wanted to do. They were in the right place but just the wrong time. You never know when it’s going to be your last day on the earth. Do what you love to do so your at peace if an accident such as this happens. Wish for a full recovery for all the injured and RIP to all the deceased. Healing for all the family’s.

  5. Well written. Saw the Nine-o-Nine at Jamestown, N.Y. this past August. I was extremely saddened by what happened. Took a few pics of the plane.

  6. Agreed. Sometimes I get things wrong too, but I wish you would have reached out to correct me for saying that the Boeing had not lengthened the landing gear on the 737max (although maybe it wasn’t lengthened enough). An error not corrected is an error propagated.

    Also, I never see any comment I contribute appear after I submit it; why?

  7. I was in life support in the sixties and seventies inF4s and eb66,and I got very close to those air crews during my time in life support I had 11 crews crash. Every one of those crashes tore the heart right out of me. I respected those men and still miss them.

  8. VERY well said……..thumbs up!!!!!

    I am a female & have ALWAYS been interested in WWII planes and the important part they played in winning WWII and the super brave men who flew her and their crews and I was lucky enough to fly in the B-17 years ago when it came to Buchanan Air Field in Concord, I LOVED flying in a piece of history!!!!

  9. Great article–and well said. For over 25 years, I was stop sponsor for the foundation. Mac was an integral part of the tour. He was kind and easy-going but didn’t tolerate mediocrety. He’ll be greatly missed.

  10. B-17 9-0-9 was MY B-17. I have had a life long love affair with all aircraft but especially this particular plane. In 2001 I paid my bucks and took a flight on her. One of the most memorable experiences of my life.
    That day Mac Mac Cauley wasn’t flying her but I was privileged to come to know him over the years when the Collings Foundation visited White Plains.
    Mac was a consummate airman. He knew every inch of 9-0-9 and cared for her like a child. He would never take to the air if there was the slightest hint of a problem.
    Many people who do not understand the complexitys of flying these airplanes are apparently speculating on what happened and criticizing a professional pilot whom they know nothing about.
    Stop. Let the NTSB conduct their investigation. And before you are tempted to jump on the ‘ground them all ‘band wagon’ please remember that those 13 souls chose to be on board the plane Wednesday morning. A bit if living history, to see, hear, touch and to remember all those who flew those great old planes for you and me.

  11. The article is well written. I was fortunate enough to fly on the 909 about 14 years ago in Oxford Ct. More significantly, I flew with my dad, a WW11 B17 mechanic who was stationed in England. Make no mistake, it was the thrill of a life time. I remember vividly the exchange of dialogue between my dad and the on-site mechanics- my dad was impressed how well the “ ship” was maintained. I live about 45 minutes from Bradley, and was unquestionably devastated that morning at the loss of life, as well as a piece of history. Antiquated/ new technology, accidents are an unfortunate part of the equation. My prayers to the families.

  12. Great article, so very true! I’m going up shortly in a C-182, I’ll wag that wing like I mean it!!!!

  13. Well said (written)…. And where the NTSB need to do their job, the politicians that are commenting on this (some wanting to stop passenger flights on warbirds), need to butt out and keep their opinions to themselves. This is a subject that most have no idea or understanding of. Any time crew and or passengers take to the air on these aircraft, there is a possibility that problems can occur. The decision to fly is something we choose to do freely. It is no ones place to tell us that we can’t. And no ones place to Monday morning quarterback the small group of pilots who fly these pieces of living history.

    I, along with my dad and brothers, have had the privilege and pleasure of flying as passengers on the “Nine O Nine” (and the B 24 – “Witchcraft”). The Collings Foundation arircraft are magnificent. We did not personally get to know the folks that are the heart of the Foundation (other than passing handshakes and introductions), but you could see the team and family like environment that exists during the Wings of Freedom tours. I can only describe those that we met over the years as “personable professionals”. These folks believe in, and love what they are doing. They maintain and care for these aircraft as if they are their children. And I cannot stress professional enough. The preflight briefings were well explained, straight forward do’s and don’ts, and clear expectations with a safety first mindset. The experiences were incredible. And we go visit the aircraft anytime they are in the area. My dad and I last saw “Nine O Nine” at LCI last week.

    I have not had any experience with the other organizations that still fly and display these important parts of our history. I have read and heard about them. It seems like the culture among all these groups are to the same impeccable standards as the Collings Foundation crews, volunteers and administrators.

    The lives lost, the injuries, and loss of an iconic aircraft are tragic. All those of us who appreciate and understand this important part of our history, can do from here is learn what can be learned, move forward and continue the mission. The advice at the end of the article, about what to do next, was spot on…. “Go flying”. My dad, brothers and I would (and will) take warbird flights again.

    Eric VanSteensburg

  14. I am a low time pilot of both the B-17’s and McCauley’s age. NOBODY can amass the hours in type as he did without becoming an expert pilot of Type! He had more time and experience of any registered pilot, possibly living pilot, possibly in the world. I fully believe he did his best under the circumstances.
    That said, who in this group of pilots and non is qualified to criticize? It would be like questioning God!

  15. Very well written and oh so very true. May God bless all of the victims and their families.

  16. Heartfelt and well-written. RIP Mac, crew, and guests. (I flew on the B-24 out of Nashua NH, a few days after 9-11. Caroline Collings was my pilot. It was an experience I’ll never forget.)

  17. My wife said he ride in that very B-17 was one of the greatest flights she’s ever had. She has a new respect for the boys who flew them and the simplicity of the airframe itself. I still wear the T-shirt I bought that day. I remember the glass smooth landing and the thrill of flying a little history.

  18. It is so sad about this aircraft, crew and passengers. People that are making stupid assumptions should just keep quiet, because, unless you have thousands of hours in type aircraft and actually know what you are talking about, just keep it to yourselves. Until NTSB has gone through that aircraft and know what the problems were, just wait and quit listening to the news, because they don’t have a clue. Just pray that the people involved and families get some comfort.

  19. After seeing the dark black smoke that is not consistent with gasoline, we think maybe it got fueled with jet A by mistake? That would explain all of the engines having problems??? Just a thought

  20. The term is gone west. It comes from the first world war. The eastern front was supplied from the west of the front and when pilots were killed they were put on the supply wagons going back west. So the term is gone west not flown west.

  21. I flew my 46 J3 Cub West for quite a while in honor of those who flew West a couple of days ago in 909. RIP.

  22. So sad, more of our aviation family have gone west. I have been in love with aviation ever since at 7 years old playing in the back yard in the early 1960s when F86s would roar overhead from the local airbase. I was going to be one of those magnificent aviators.

    Time wore on and I was introduced to OshKosh in 1984. It was then I met my future extended family. The wonderful people of aviation. That was 35 years ago. Thirty five years of fly-ins and air shows with my wonderful family of aviators.

    It always hurts our hearts when crashes like this one occur. Some of us don’t know the people who perished in this crash but in a way we do. We know we share a common bond. I have put off finishing my private license because of life’s responsibilities and priority of providing for my family. Now almost retired and facing some time of my own at 65 I have lost vision in one eye because of a botched simple eye surgery. Even though I will never be a pilot I will always respect the world of aviation people and feel their families loss of the ones gone west.

    Great job Isabel coming to this veteran aviator’s defense against those who criticize his final moments. You can bet he was using all the years of accumulated experience he had to save that plane and his passengers.

  23. I can’t comment at all as to what happened…. And won’t. Only to say I was a pilot, a Glider Pilot in the RAFVRT for 38 years. Training the young to fly. To learn and extend there every wish to be airborne. Throughout flying history there has been tragic events which, no matter how you look at it, have allowed us to learn and move forward. Unfortunately, this will never changed, unless we allow aircraft to become automatic, then we will possibly find a way of blaming a programmer. Historical aircraft and those that fly them have my utmost respect…. and deserve our support. Long may they continue to grace the sky’s and take our minds back to other times.

  24. Sad, It was not just a machine, it represented what America was and is all about. Sadder to lose the lives. I’m sure that Mac did all that he could to get the Fortress back to the field. Great man, great legacy.


  26. Thank you for sharing, everything you have said is true people that have no idea how to fly always think the crew should have done something different.
    The crew knew what they where doing its a pity that it came with lose of life and the aircraft, as I have retired from Qantas Airways a few years back and still follow aircraft very closely, this a great lose (Lest we Forget)

  27. Thank you for a well written and stated comment. All to often today everyone is an armchair general. As you stated they sure don’t know very much about what they are speaking about. I had the pleasure of boarding a B-17 bomber on display at a small air show a few years back. It was. Large step back in time. The pilots that flew these planes under the conditions that they had during the war is an ABSOLUTE TESTAMENT to their ability to get the job done. I have nothing but respect for all who serve red during WWII but also for those who give us the ability to REACH BACK IN TIME to experience what our grandfathers and great grandfathers did for us. Any plane crash is a tragedy. A reminder that nothing is perfect. We need to be about the business of celebrating the lives of those lost in this crash and all that was given to all of us. May God Bless and Comfort all of the families that lost someone in this crash!

  28. This particular crash has gotten to me too. I crawled inside the same B-17 about a year ago when it was in Burlington, VT. I drove past Bradley Airport this past weekend. It has hit home, hard. Thoughts and prayers for the family and friends of all those who lost their lives and those recovering from their injuries.

  29. I have to agree about “Monday morning quarterbacks’. As a pilot and a member of several forums online, I am amazed at the expertise out there. No matter the subject there are always a couple that have all the answers.
    In the case of “909” we may never know the cause, only the outcome. Speculation will be rampant, I’m human I have some thoughts of my own. The one thing I’m sure of is the crew did everything possible to save the aircraft and its a great loss to the flying community.

  30. I can’t believe that three messages I have left have been erased!

    God bless the
    People on board this aircraft! God bless the work they have done to bring this aircraft to life again!
    They have lost their lives in bringing history to the common man!
    Thank you, to you who sought to bring this to life! God bless your families!!
    You have been people of importance who have brought us important messages.May your souls live on?

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